Former Obama Officials: U.S. Unable to Cope With Complex Security Challenges
By Sandra I. Erwin
The U.S. military and intelligence agencies are concentrating efforts on defeating the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. But there are many ticking time bombs across the foreign policy landscape and in cyberspace that could set off bigger crises for the United States, several former government officials said.
“We can't just focus on ISIS,” said Michael J. Morell, former acting director of the CIA during the Obama administration.
Al-Qaida in Yemen and other extremist groups are of more immediate concern to the United States as they are actively planning to attack the U.S. homeland, Morell said Oct. 30 at the SAP National Security Solutions Summit in Falls Church, Va.
Even more alarming is how quickly the jihadist ideology is spreading in many parts of the world, which means the United States will find it increasingly tougher to stop terrorist attacks, said Morell. Islamic extremism is expanding rapidly across North Africa, including in Egypt for the first time in 25 years. It is also growing in Eastern Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, and Southeast Asia, including Indonesia, the Philippines and Malaysia. “The threat of small-scale attacks is significant in the United States, he said. “If al-Qaida in Yemen were able to bring down an airliner tomorrow, I would not be surprised.”
Morell also pointed to Iran as a potential threat that goes beyond that country’s nuclear ambitions. “Iran has a desire for hegemony across the Middle East. … It practices terrorism as a tool of statecraft, supports terrorists and insurgent movements throughout the region,” including in Bahrain, in Eastern Saudi Arabia and Yemen, he said. “These issues will not go away even if we have a nuclear deal.”
U.S. policy makers are unable to come to grips with the fundamental historical change that is taking place in the Middle East, nor are they able to predict its implications for U.S. national security, Morell said. “Anyone who tells you they know what the Middle East will look like five years from now doesn't know what they're talking about.”
There is also no viable U.S. strategy to deal with Russia’s aggressions against former Soviet republics such as Georgia and Ukraine, Morell said. Russian President Vladimir Putin “is not done in Ukraine yet. He has not yet succeeded in ensuring the autonomy of Eastern Ukraine,” he said. While the conventional wisdom in Washington is that Putin is a strategic “chess master,” he’s more of a reckless risk taker, and the United States has been slow to counter him, Morell said. Putin is like the entrepreneur who takes a risk, succeeds, and then is willing to take a bigger risk, he added. “I fear he may do something in Ukraine or the Baltic region that puts us in a very difficult situation.”
Former U.S. ambassador John Negroponte, chairman of the Intelligence and National Security Alliance, said the United States has botched its response to Russian aggression and is now facing the prospect of Putin continuing to test NATO’s wherewithal.
“I worry that Russia might push the envelope too far,” Negroponte told the SAP conference. The United States in this case failed to apply the simple concept of deterrence by not assisting the Ukrainian government to make it more expensive for Putin to do what he wants to do.
Morell also questioned the U.S. strategy to deal with the rise of China. “China is by far the most important bilateral relationship for the United States in the world,” he said. “It's important we get the relationship right or it will become a threat.”
The United States shares with China a fundamental interest in the health of that country’s economy. They both also have overlapping interests in seeking stability in the Middle East. But the United States has yet to figure out how to adjust to China’s ascent as a regional and global power. “The Chinese want greater say in what's going on in their neighborhood,” he said. “Either we give them some increased room or we're going to have a problem,” said Morell. “We both have militaries in the same regions. So we have to train and equip against each other, plan against each other. That creates tension,” he added. “We will need statesmen in Washington and Beijing to work this out over the next five to 10 years.”
Negroponte said it behooves the United States to take the lead in preventing a war with China over territorial disputes such as islands in the South China Sea. “History is replete with examples of countries going to war over relatively insignificant things.”
Jack Devine, a 32-year veteran of the CIA, noted that Washington obsesses about China’s military buildup, while the more serious concern should be the possibility of an economic downturn. “The last thing we need is a collapsing Chinese economy,” he said. “We can manage the Chinese military buildup. It's not even close to matching U.S. capability.”
Devine lamented that important policy debates like China’s rise have been overly partisan. “Eventually we will have to have a bipartisan foreign policy,” he said.
Frances Townsend, a national security adviser during the George W. Bush administration, predicted that the chances of bipartisanship in foreign policy are slim to none.
She cited the impasse in Congress over cyber security legislation, which is now becoming a national security issue. In the wake of a reported Russian intrusion into White House computer networks, there is growing urgency for Washington to set guidelines, Townsend said at the conference. “Russia is going to force us to decide when is a cyber attack an act of war. If they attack the White House networks, how far do we let that go?” The private sector is becoming alarmed by the government’s inaction and indecisiveness on this issue, she said. “We don't know where the red line is.”
Morell called cyber the “fastest growing national security threat.” It is going to get worse, he said. “The number of adversaries and the degree of sophistication are growing.”
The dysfunction in Washington is not only stalling critical policy actions but also weakening the military, said Robert Gates, former CIA director who also served as secretary of defense under the George W. Bush and the Obama administrations.
Gates in his recently published memoir called out the Obama administration for incompetence and over-politicization in foreign policy. In his keynote speech at the SAP summit, his harshest jabs were aimed at Congress.
“President Obama is sailing in uncharted and increasingly perilous waters with respect to how his administration handles America’s global position in the wake of Iraq and Afghanistan,” he said. He does not see American elected leaders willing to fight to maintain the nation’s position as a global superpower, he said. America is war fatigued, but “Russia is not tired, China is not tired,” said Gates.
Despite a widening array of threats, Gates insisted that political gridlock in Washington poses the biggest menace to national security. Congress’ failure to pass budgets and support the military’s needs borders on unconstitutional behavior, he said. As defense secretary from 2006 to 2010, Gates said, the “most dispiriting experience I had was dealing with Congress.” Its failure to appropriate money is an abdication of the legislature’s constitutional duty, he said. Between fiscal years 2007 and 2011, Gates prepared five budges for the Pentagon. “Not once was a defense appropriations bill enacted before the start of the new fiscal year. That situation has only gotten worse.”
The Budget Control Act and the imposition of automatic across-the-board spending cuts also is damaging to essential government operations and national security, said Gates. “Hawks and isolationists on the right, and old-school liberals on the left believe further cuts to defense are tolerable and advisable,” The Obama budget also is inadequate, he said. Under the latest administration’s budget proposal for fiscal year 2015-2019, defense spending dips below 3 percent of GDP and will account for the lowest percentage of federal expenditures since before World War II, he said. “I tried to be realistic about the budget as defense secretary, but the money and the political support simply aren’t there."